From the cover of "The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth
From the cover of "The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s prescient ‘Plot Against America’ is focus of event series

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As a generator of controversy, American Jewish writer Philip Roth has few peers.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about Roth, author of the short-fiction collection “Goodbye Columbus” (1959), the graphic, male-centric novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969), and his elegy to the tumultuous ’60s, “American Pastoral” (1997). He even had the chutzpah to write one book titled “The Great American Novel.”

That’s part of what made him such a good pick for the Jewish LearningWorks’ One Bay One Book program, a project of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Library designed to engage as many people as possible in reading, discussing and learning about one book over the course of a year.

For 2018-19, the book has been Roth’s 2004 novel “The Plot Against America,” a fictional work of alternative history. Set in a 1940 America in which populist candidate Charles Lindbergh defeats incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt in the presidential race, the novel explores many themes that scream “Trump era,” including an increased societal acceptance of anti-Semitism and a U.S. leader potentially cozying up to foreign power, in this case Nazi Germany.

Thus, the book “feels particularly relevant in our present moment, as we observe a blooming of anti-Semitism on both the extreme right and extreme left,” Howard Freedman, director of the Jewish Community Library, wrote in an article for J. last year. “The progressively institutionalized anti-Jewish sentiment of the novel can only take root because it resonates with a significant portion of Americans. Do we American Jews tend to take the security of our status for granted? And how do we respond when it is groups other than Jews that are being scapegoated?”

Four public One Bay One Book events are coming up in late March and early April, as the series comes to a close in June.

On Sunday, March 24 at 1:30 p.m., Bradley W. Hart, assistant professor at Fresno State University and the author of several books on Nazism in England, will present “Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States.” His talk will explore a range of Americans who sympathized with Nazi views in the pre-World War II period, including Father Charles Coughlin, whose radio program was openly anti-Semitic. Lindbergh, a celebrity aviator at the time, also espoused anti-Semitic views and was a spokesperson for the “America First” perspective.

On Sunday, March 31 at 1:30 p.m., Steven Zipperstein, professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford University, will talk about his biography-in-progress of Roth. His presentation, ”Excavating Philip Roth: Reflections on a Biography’s Beginnings,” will explore the task of starting on a biography, his experiences interviewing Roth and those close to him, and what it has been like to write about someone who so famously blurred the lines between autobiographical fact and fiction in his writing. Zipperstein is the author and editor of nine books, including “Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History,” which was named one of the best books of 2018 by the Economist.

On Thursday, April 4 at 7 p.m., Shaina Hammerman, professor of Jewish studies and literature at the University of San Francisco, will give a talk about Roth, Grace Paley and the “Jewish American renaissance” in literature. Her presentation will examine the interplay between expressions of gender and Jewishness in American culture. Hammerman is the author of “Silver Screen, Hasidic Jews: The Story of an Image.”

The three programs above are free and will take place at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., San Francisco.

On Tuesday, April 9 at 7:30 p.m., Freedman will be giving a talk at Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto titled “Philip Roth’s Jewish Fiction/Friction.” The focus will be Roth’s debut collection of one novella and five short stories in “Goodbye, Columbus,” which sparked controversy in the Jewish community for its often unflattering portrayals of Jews and earned Roth the label of “self-hating Jew” from many.

New events are posted on an ongoing basis;  visit the One Bay One Book website at for more information.

Multiple events at JCCs and synagogues around the Bay Area are also listed.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.